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Hannibal Rising   C-

MGM / The Weinstein Company

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Peter Webber
Writer: Thomas Harris (based on his book)
Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Gong Li, Rhys Ifans, Kevin McKidd, Dominic West, Richard Blake, Stephen Walters, Ivan Marevich.

Review by Rob Vaux

I find it curious that, of all the artists involved in the Hannibal Lecter saga, the one who understands the character the least is his creator, Thomas Harris. Having established the potential for greatness with Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs -- books later transformed into masterpieces by a pair of talented filmmakers -- he then smashed that potential to bits by penning first the unforgivable Hannibal and now the novel and screenplay for Hannibal Rising, the supposed story of how his beloved bogeyman got started. Why on earth would he destroy such a legacy by sinking so far into pulpy hash?

Oh right, the giant piles of money.

I suppose anyone would be tempted to sell out if Dino De Laurentiis kept sending garbage bags full of $100 bills to their door, but watching the results here makes it abundantly clear just how far this series has fallen. Not that Hannibal Rising is dreadful; merely dull, uninspired, and leeching still more of the intoxicating fright that Anthony Hopkins embodied so effortlessly in another February film not so long ago. Director Peter Webber helms the project the with the same dedication to static, unmoving beauty that he brought to Girl with a Pearl Earring -- mitigating Harris's seething melodrama with some lovely postcard images, but also failing to generate the requisite tension that any endeavor of this type needs.

De Laurentiis mentions in the press notes that thousands upon thousands of fans have asked for a Lecter origins story. I humbly submit that those fans should never be allowed to influence decisions like this again. The notion of humanizing Lecter -- of helping us understand how he got to be so awful -- is anathema to any creature of such hypnotic magnitude. Lecter is infernal, a superhuman entity wrapped in a human shell. When Hopkins stared through that bulletproof glass and fixed his gaze on you, you knew he was dangerous, but you also knew there was nothing you could do to resist him. He would learn all your secrets, spot your vulnerabilities, and use them to destroy you as easily as swatting a fly. Giving him a background that we can relate to robs him of that power. Hannibal Rising presumably hopes it will make him more believable -- grounding his evil in a recognizable reality -- and yet even if we accept the damage that causes to his overall image, the events onscreen ring so supremely false that the entire affair is rendered moot. Seeing the character's protean quirks reminds one of Dr. Evil's speech about luge lessons; it's that ridiculous.

The film starts in Lithuania at the end of World War II, as the retreating Germans force the aristocratic Lecter family to flee their ancestral castle for a cabin in the woods. A sudden skirmish between the Nazis and the Red Army leaves the senior family members dead, forcing young Hannibal (Aaron Thomas) to care for his little sister Mischa (Helena-Lia Tachovska) alone. Then the looters arrive: cruel, loutish, on the run from both sides, and willing to use the children as bargaining chips should they ever be caught. They stay on in the cabin and initially keep the children fed, but the winter is harsh and the lack of sustenance forces them to adopt drastic measures that fans of the character will immediately recognize.

Flash-forward eight years, as a now-adolescent Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) escapes the Iron Curtain and arrives in Paris, where his aunt-by-marriage Murasaki (Gong Li) has given him haven. But despite her affections (and the intellectual brilliance that lands him a spot in the best medical school in France), nightmares from the war remain. His photographic memory allows him to identify the looters by look alone, and memories of their torment sear themselves forever into his subconscious. Then an unpleasant incident with a local thug gives rise to an enticing possibility: he can kill and get away with it. What's an enterprising young murderer to do but set out to even the score?

The essential simplicity of this structure belies its earnest attempts to explain Lecter's psychosis. Ulliel captures the basics of the character -- the thousand-yard stare, the polite demeanor, the unsettling smile suggesting how you might taste with sherry and a little garlic -- but the film never permits him to develop beyond that. Instead, it contents itself with cyclical sequences of one-note revenge, in which some hapless brute -- far more vile than Lecter, we are assured -- thinks he has the upper hand, only to find the tables turned in some appropriately grisly fashion. Hannibal's visual hallmarks (his sketches, the restraints he wore in Silence of the Lambs, etc.) appear as fetishized symbols, no more relevant to his psyche than Jason Voorhees's hockey mask. Webber punctuates each sequence with few melodramatic flourishes -- ostensibly demonstrating Hannibal's descent into madness -- but they muddy far more than they illuminate.

Even worse, the film can't deliver a decent foil to oppose him. Harris's later novels profoundly misunderstood the importance of Lecter's two chief adversaries -- Will Graham and Clarice Starling -- and the unforgivable ruination of those characters (which rightfully drove Jodie Foster from the franchise) permanently diminished the sun that Lecter's shadow requires to flourish. The better angels of Hannibal Rising compound that error, lacking both the courage and intelligence to launch a suitable challenge. Dominic West makes a token effort as a French war-crimes investigator onto Hannibal's reindeer games, but their verbal duels are flat and uninteresting (as well as poking some gaping holes in the events of Silence and Red Dragon). Murasaki is marginally more interesting, her role as fading moral compass boosted by Li's always-welcome screen presence. But she too never musters the strength to stand against him, ultimately serving only as a flimsy precursor to Starling's much more dynamic do-gooder. The looters, of course, are in over their heads from the get-go, and their efforts to outsmart Lecter feel like empty scenery padding. Without sharper obstacles to overcome, Hannibal Rising becomes just another revenge flick: Death Wish with a swankier address.

Had there been some other name on the title, it might have been easier to forgive. Webber is an excellent composer of imagery (aided by DP Ben Davis and production designer Allan Starski), and he knows how to balance overt gore with evocative suggestion. But the drama on display suggests more of a lazy afterthought than a real story, especially with a villain so enduring. Indeed, the figure here seems to have only tangential bearing to the one we've come to know: his darkness is too understandable -- too sympathetic -- to send any lasting chills down our spines. The real Hannibal Lecter delivers much more by showing us much less. He has no past, no mother and father who loved him, and no glib explanation justifying his existence. He has always been in his cell at the end of that long, frightening corridor -- waiting there patiently and daring us to look him in the eye. The guy in Hannibal Rising? Frankly, I have no idea who he is.

Review published 02.09.2007.

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